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Why business and academia is such a powerful combination


Andrew Carr, CEO, Bull UK & Ireland (an Atos company) looks at how business and academia can collaborate more effectively to reduce the technology skills gap

TechUK’s proposal for new rules to allow more skilled technology workers into the country highlight the scale of the challenge that continues to face the UK in finding people with the necessary skills to understand and make effective use of the latest wave of disruptive technologies that are reshaping business today from big data to high-performance computing (HPC). I welcome the TechUK initiative and agree with chief executive Julian David’s assertion that, “you’ve got to make sure that the UK becomes a hub for digital skills." Addressing the skills shortage should be a top national priority.

After all, the pace of change caused by technology has accelerated over the past few years with the mobile and social revolutions, cloud technology, the growing recognition of the potential of big data analysis and most recently, the rise in products embedded with smart, web-connected sensors creating the ‘Internet of Things.’ The UK desperately needs to be able to compete in all these areas. However, these new disruptive technologies are complex and businesses operating in isolation often struggle to understand and harness them for their own commercial benefit, or for that of UK PLC as a whole.

Take big data. There’s so much industry buzz about it, but few companies actually know how to fulfil its potential. Some have the vision, but don’t know how to get there. More often, businesses need help in identifying the opportunities presented by the data they hold. Besides, the kind of predictive analysis data scientists are now carrying out to exploit this data sits more comfortably in an environment where ideas can be pooled and there’s time for experimentation, rather than in a business office.

"For business, working with academia can often be like having a global lab of experts on hand, who add value in various ways."

For this reason, future governments must continue to encourage closer links between UK universities and industry to enable us to take a leading role on the world’s business stage. At the same time, businesses should appreciate that they won’t always be able to do things themselves but will often need to rely on strategic partnerships with academic institutions and other third-party organisations.

We expect to see a growing trend of collaboration between business and academia in new disruptive technology areas. These partnerships can sometimes be informal. For business, working with academia can often be like having a global lab of experts on hand, who add value in various ways. This could be giving feedback on product designs and plans to ensure fitness for purpose. It could even lead onto the co-design of products and services. Often it involves businesses hosting students or staff at their research labs, providing invaluable experience of life beyond academic ivory towers.

There is, however, also huge potential in more formal partnerships between universities and businesses. Bull’s collaboration with the University of Warwick, for example, sees data scientists from the university’s strategic business research unit and business experts combine skills, knowledge and HPC resources to help Bull’s customers and others increase their understanding of data integration and analysis and devise practical ways to exploit the results.

It highlights how by taking this challenge beyond the mainstream business environment and engaging the best brains possible on the subject, we can help organisations start to realise new implementations of this kind by injecting a new dynamism into high performance project development that will allow them to be first to market with their initiatives.

Further evidence of the benefits of this approach is provided by HPC Midlands, a joint venture between Loughborough University and the University of Leicester, backed by £1m funding from the UK Government agency and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The new facility provides state-of-the-art e-infrastructure for research and industry. Powered by a 3,000 core Sandy Bridge-based supercomputer, HPC Midlands is all about universities and research organisations working more closely with industry to improve the economic environment. It’s about prioritising research that has direct economic benefits for both academic and industrial organisations.

Ultimately, it’s a project that provides yet another example of the power of business and academia working in tandem to build initiatives that benefit both worlds, furthering research projects and addressing the skills shortages that prevent commercial enterprises from exploiting the potential of their own technology.

So, while I would commend TechUK for raising this issue and proposing that more skilled technology workers are able to migrate into the UK, there is much more that the worlds of business and academia can achieve to proactively address the skills gap through the development of joint projects and by bringing academics and business people together to the ultimate benefit of both.

by Andrew Carr, CEO, Bull UK & Ireland, An Atos companyFor further information, please visit the Bull UK website – Twitter: @Bull_UK LinkedIn: Bull UK Andrew Carr, CEO Bull UK & Ireland Twitter: @acarr_bull LinkedIn: Andrew Carr, CEO Bull UK & Ireland

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